Nov 022023
 
killing in the name covers

There are many ways to bring your light to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Some fill a whole room with colour, for a long or short period. You can illuminate a small corner of the musical world, maintaining interest in a neglected room. You can have a small light which initially brings interest and others, adding to the flame and luminescence.

Rage Against the Machine are incandescent. They bring the brightest of light, to the darkest of places, and are angry. Their studio output is similar to a number of artists in the Hall who had their lives and careers cruelly cut short, but every one of their songs is a coruscating mix of music and politics. They only ever had one Number One song in a major market but their influence is massive and ongoing. Continue reading »

Oct 182023
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

If you haven’t been aware of the story of Talking Heads getting back together, I guess you may have been on another planet, such was the publicity. Given they didn’t even play anything, grouping only to talk and be interviewed, this shows quite the lasting appeal of this band, and gives some idea of the delight forthcoming if they actually did pick up their musical gear.

The occasion was the polished up re-release of Jonathan Demme’s concert film of the band in their prime, 1984’s Stop Making Sense. You know, the big suit and all of that. Because the break-up of the band was so famously dysfunctional, any previous talk of the foursome ever meeting up again was deemed well nigh impossible, such the apparent lasting ill-feeling between de facto band leader David Byrne and the other three, constructively dismissed at the end of the road, or as near as. Literally so, it being at the end of a tour. Many words have been spoken: drummer, Chris Frantz has said a fair bit in his memoir, Remain In Love. Yet, as they grouped around a table in Toronto this fall, all seemed sweet and contrite, even as they carefully dodged questions around any more working together. (So they didn’t deny it, shout all the fanbase! We shall see…..)

“Burning Down the House” was one of their biggies, their only Billboard top 10 single. Based on the skeleton of a studio jam between Frantz and his wife, bass player Tina Weymouth, its evolution had David Byrne chanting nonsense lyrics, designed more to fit the scan,  than to make any sense, and Jerry Harrison, the 4th Head, adding choppy synthesizer stabs. And, yes, of course it was in the film, if somewhat expanded and adapted, featuring Weymouth on synth bass. It was and remains a consummate snapshot of what the band were then doing, applying a remarkable meshwork capture of jittery post-punk new wave energy, funky dance club rhythms and emergent afro stylings.

But, are there, I wonder, any other ways of gilding this lily?
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Sep 052023
 

In Search of Gil Scott-Heron is a fine new graphic novel about the life of a great artist. Or more accurately, as with the movies Round Midnight or Searching For Sugarman, it is as much about the life of a fan as the life of a special artist. French documentary maker Thomas Mauceri documents how he fell in love with the politics and music of the Godfather of Rap (a term Scott-Heron was not that keen on) during an academic stay in the United States. As a fan, he had experiences and met new people that he could not have done otherwise. The novel is beautifully drawn by Seb Piquet and the lettering for the English edition is expertly done by Lauren Bowes. In addition to the recollections of Mauceri, the book is interspersed with biography and observations about Gil Scott-Heron and his life as a pioneer and leader, and the less celebratory parts of his life. Much of the book is set around the time of the artist’s death in 2011. For those who saw him on his final tour, completed not long before his death, it is very poignant. We could see the fire and the talent, but also the losses that Scott-Heron heavily bore. His final album I’m New Here is a testament to that loss.

Even for a fan, there is new information in there. One key observation is that, at the time of his death, Scott-Heron had a small, well-maintained apartment in New York City. Given the chaos of his addictions and spells of imprisonment, this was a surprise. His friends note that the royalties from Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s hit song “The Bottle” gave him a steady income throughout the last 30 years of his life. Included on the 1974 album Winter in America, it is Jackson and Scott-Heron’s best-remembered hit, although “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” might be the most influential.

A dancefloor-filling hit song about crippling, chronic addition, “The Bottle” is a beautiful, contradictory creation. It has upbeat Caribbean rhythms wrapped Scott-Heron’s mellifluous voice. Brian Jackson brings a beautiful flute to the whole piece, infusing it with light and air, along with his other instrumental parts. The stories within it are dark but the music is light. Scott-Heron’s stories of the addicted are garnered from discussions with the visitors to a liquor store near Washington DC. We can imagine why he was there.

The song has been covered many times throughout the years by artists trying to capture the different themes. Here are five that capture the messages in a novel way.
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Jul 212023
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Barbie Girl covers

With the new Barbie movie coming out this weekend, it is the perfect time to revisit Aqua’s classic number one hit that reached that top spot in multiple countries across the globe. Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice have even contributed a version of the song for the soundtrack. It’s not so much a cover as a rap over “Barbie Girl” played in the background, but it’s still a great throwback with a new twist.

The new movie has brought up some capital-D discourse about Barbie. Is it feminist? Is it anti-feminist? Does Greta Gerwig at the helm make us more or less nervous about the outcome? Either way, as the trailer advertises: “If you love Barbie. If you hate Barbie. This movie is for you.” The movie has a star-studded cast, with Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken at the helm (since this is a music blog after all, Dua Lipa plays Mermaid Barbie).

As I was getting my head into Barbie World, compiling covers of this song, I realized that I was definitely listening to a clean version as a kid. I was used to hearing “I’m a blonde, single girl,” not “I’m a blonde, bimbo girl.” Maybe my Barbie memories have more of a girl power tinge than Aqua’s. I guess this version means that Ken hasn’t yet fully convinced Barbie of his charms. Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer, actually sued Aqua because of this “bimbo”-induced disrespect of their trademark. The court ruled in favor of the band with potentially the best closing statement of a ruling ever: “The parties are advised to chill.” I can’t make this up. Just think, without this ruling we might not have this song to rediscover in this moment.

No matter what your Barbie vibe is, there is a cover of “Barbie Girl” for you.

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Jun 162023
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Burt Bacharach

Many if not most of Burt Bacharach’s big hits were first released by other artists, usually Dionne Warwick. One big exception was “Trains and Boats and Planes,” a tale of transcontinental love which Bacharach thought was “too country” for Warwick; Bacharach and his writing partner Hal David had written the song for Gene Pitney to sing. Pitney, however, had other ideas; he rejected it and told Bacharach, “It’s not one of your better ones.”

Never one to sulk when insult was added to injury, Bacharach went to London and recorded the song with an orchestra. No lead vocalist, Bacharach assigned the lyrics to the Breakaways, a girl group who also sang backing vocals on Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” Their cool, detached voices suited the impassive song perfectly, but the bridge (“You are from another part of the world…”) proved to be too tricky, and Bacharach covered for them by making it an instrumental passage.

Today the song has earned its reputation as one of Bacharach’s better ones, Pitney notwithstanding. His version was a hit, and so was Warwick’s well-nigh-inevitable cover. The dozens of other covers that followed proved the song was strong enough to thrive under any approach, either with or without the bridge. Here are five of them.

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Apr 072023
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

God Bless The Child

Today marks the 108th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s birth. Her significance as a singer needs no elaboration from me; her songs speak for themselves, just as they have spoken to the souls of millions. “Strange Fruit” is considered her signature work, but a good argument has been made that “God Bless the Child” is of equal significance, with the added fillip of a sense of hope.

Born from an argument over money Holiday had with her mother, the song still has the zest of anger lain across it. But it also shows the way out; hard work, it’s implied, will bear its own fruit, both material and spiritual. The hope may not be powerfully warm, nor even all that self-evident, but it’s there, and it can help to lift you out and up.

With more than five hundred covers produced and released over the years, it’s impossible to single out only five as being among the best. That’s why you’ll find six featured here, and believe me, it could have been sixty. We hope these half-dozen bring you all that Mama may have and Papa may have.

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